The year that nobody expected has changed our relationship with work and how we manage mental health, giving rise to five trends that are here to stay.

Nearly one year since the pandemic first stopped UK society in its tracks, with people first told to work from home on 18 March 2020, the pandemic has transformed our lives in ways that have impacted negatively on the mental health of nearly one in two people (49%), according to research from Public Health England.

Loneliness, missing friends and family, employment worries and uncertainty about the future are just some of the reasons significant numbers of people are experiencing more anxiety (46%), stress (44%), sleep problems (34%) and low mood (46%).

Yet it’s precisely because of this impact that more employers than ever are prioritising mental health, practising compassionate leadership and allowing people unprecedented levels of autonomy over their day, giving rise to five trends we can all learn from when it comes to optimising the mental health of the workforce.

1. Managing emotions in the workplace

Before the pandemic broke in the UK, our lives were full of things we thought made us happy. Suddenly not being able to go out and meet people or buy things put the rest of our lives, in particular our jobs and the quality of our relationships, under a microscope, causing divorces to spike and one in two people to consider finding a new job.

People have had to confront their life choices and deal with uncomfortable feelings in bucketloads. They’ve been forced to learn how to sit with difficult emotions from which they might once have sought to distract themselves. Managers have had to become much better at handling people’s fears and anxieties, alongside remotely overseeing workloads, tasks and performance.

All of this has required employers to focus on encouraging and empowering managers to acknowledge emotions and get into the habit of remembering to ask individuals how they are or what help they might need. They’ve had to upskill those managers to look out for signs of emotional distress (such as tearfulness, short-temperedness, forgetfulness or reduced eye contact) so that they can direct those affected to the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or any other support services in place.

2. Allowing people to adapt their day

This time last year, the vast majority of employers would have insisted that it was impossible to allow everyone to work from home. Yet this was achieved with next to no notice in a way that enabled people to be just as, if not more, productive than before.

After decades of people enduring long commutes and rigid working hours that made it difficult for them to do the school run, take a long lunch break to exercise or enjoy a hobby, the rules about how or when we work were thrown into disarray. Three-quarters of employers (75%) invited staff to make changes to their working patterns to cope with the new normal.

With almost two thirds (61%) of employees saying they would like to continue working from home in some capacity, according to a YouGov survey, the mental health benefits of this are not to be overlooked. Many employers say they anticipate a major shift away from the traditional workplace, even when social distancing is no longer mandatory.

3. Basing mental health support on actual needs

Half the people who used an EAP because a specific mental health issue was making it “difficult to concentrate at work” reported this being resolved afterwards, according to an audit into the effectiveness of EAP counselling. Nevertheless, most employers have had to acknowledge the need to offer a much wider range of support.

With anxiety levels soaring during the pandemic, making sure that people felt okay about not feeling okay was an important part of ‘normalising’ the anxiety that everyone was experiencing. Staging online webinars was just one of a number of important preventative measures taken by many employers.

Others had to put new solutions in place to deal with the burnout and fatigue experienced by working parents, or provide trauma support for frontline workers and other people exposed to death during the pandemic. All of which highlighted the importance of devising wellbeing strategies and support services based on what employees actually needed.

4. Building work around human needs

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic, it was the way it forced employers to think outside the box after years of not questioning the impact of outdated working patterns on our physical and emotional health.

From the rise in homeworking to the extra emphasis on managing emotions and empowering workers to adapt their hours around their needs, employers have shown themselves to be incredibly creative.

There is now the opportunity to further rebuild the workplace around human needs, and not just organisational goals. For example, instead of just putting people’s workplaces ‘into the cloud’, so they can access it anytime from any location, thought can now be put into how to ‘build back better’ in a way that facilitates positive human interaction, protects people’s need to disconnect from work during time off and boosts teamworking and knowledge-sharing.

5. Acting on the data

The days of employers taking stock of how people are feeling once every few years with an engagement survey are also at an end.

With the world around us changing so rapidly and so much uncertainty still ahead, pulse surveys and understanding how people are feeling right now have become much more important, especially when it comes to mental health.

The link between wellbeing and productivity has never been clearer, meaning employers with processes in place for collecting data on factors undermining the health and ability of their people to perform stand a much greater chance of being able to quickly but sustainably rectify any issues they identify. And those same employers are better able to optimise their wellbeing spend on areas that will have the biggest impact and make the most positive difference.

Need some help?

If your workplace is experiencing low morale and high absence, or needs mental health, trauma or fatigue support, our expert team of occupational health consultants and psychotherapists is here to help.

We can conduct focus groups and surveys to help you understand what the underlying issues are and put forward solutions to address them. Contact us to find out more.